Sunday, December 22, 2013

Threats from the House of Saud: real or hot air?

Last week, HRH Prince Mohammed bin Nawaf bin Abdulaziz al Saud, Saudi Arabia’s ambassador to Britain and a member of the House of Saud, wrote an op-ed piece in the New York Times entitled "Saudi Arabia Will Go It Alone".  Besides the usual ideological propaganda statements and a predictable litany of Saudi complaints about the West not doing enough, the piece contains a definite though vague threat:
The foreign policy choices being made in some Western capitals risk the stability of the region and, potentially, the security of the whole
Arab world. This means the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia has no choice but to become more assertive in international affairs: more determined than ever to stand up for the genuine stability our region so desperately needs.  (...)  We will act to fulfill these responsibilities, with or without the support of our Western partners. Nothing is ruled out in our pursuit of sustainable peace and stability in the Arab World as King Abdullah — then Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince — showed with his leadership of the 2002 Arab Peace Initiative to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict (...)  We continue to show our determination through our support for the Free Syrian Army and the Syrian opposition. It is too easy for some in the West to use the threat of Al Qaeda’s terrorist operations in Syria as an excuse for hesitation and inaction. Al Qaeda’s activities are a symptom of the international community’s failure to intervene. They should not become a justification for inaction. The way to prevent the rise of extremism in Syria — and elsewhere — is to support the champions of moderation: financially, materially and yes, militarily, if necessary (...) Saudi Arabia will continue on this new track for as long as proves necessary.
Much is said here, much is alluded to and much remains unsaid.  Let's parse this text for the key words: more assertive, nothing ruled out, determined to support the "Syrian opposition" financially, materially and militarily.  Sounds impressive, but is it really?  What can the Saudis really do?  Let's look at their options:

1) Continue to pour money into the international Jihadist gang which has been waging war on Syria for several years: yes, that is an option, but that is nothing new, the Saudis, and their allies, have already been doing that for a long while and it did not help the insurgency.  Pouring even more money into a largely defeated insurgency will really only serve to foster corruption and infighting and won't do anything to reverse the situation.

2) Continue to send weapons to the insurgency: just as with money, the Saudis and their allies have already been doing this too, and it did them no good.  Why?  Because the insurgency has enough light weapons anyway, whereas bigger, more complex, weapons systems are harder to deliver and they need trained personnel to operate.  Even more importantly, a few canons, tanks or multiple rocket launchers cannot be used effectively unless there is a full system of support around them: logistics, ammunition, intelligence, forward artillery controllers, etc.  There is a reason why even when they could seize such weapons from government forces insurgencies rarely could use them effectively.

3) Directly intervene in Syria: well, he did say that "nothing is ruled out", didn't he?  So could the Saudis simply send their military across the border and attack the government forces?  Nope.  Why?  Simply because they do not share a common border and to get to Syria the Saudis would have to cross through western Iraq or Jordan.  Could the Saudis send their air force to provide support to the insurgency? Yes but, again, that would mean overflying Iraq or Jordan, and the Saudis could only do that with the agreement of CENTCOM which is highly unlikely, to say the least (more about that later).

4) Attack Iran or let the Israelis use Saudi airfields for an attack on Iran: sounds crazy, doesn't it?  But think about again.  First, after decades of semi-secret collaboration the Saudis and the Israelis have recently upgraded their relationship to something looking like a semi-official love story.  And, look at the example of "nothing is ruled out" which Prince Mohammed gives in his text: the Saudi 2002 "Peace Initiative" offered to Israel.  So if really "nothing is ruled out" then we should not rule out a sudden "strategic rapprochement" between the two crazy religious and racist regimes in the Middle East: the KSA and the Israel. Neither should we rule out a possible joint action against Iran by these two rogue states who now make no secret that feel that the Obama Administration is letting them down.  Scary though?  Yes, but considering the lunatics involved, one which we need to consider.

What is the main impediment for an Israel attack on Iran?  Distance.

Sure, the Israelis could use ballistic or cruise missiles, but they would not provide the kind of flexible capabilities needed to severely degrade Iranian nuclear facilities and associated research centers.  That is a job for the air force.  The problem for the Israeli Air Force is not only that it does not have a common border with Iran and that they would need to get all sorts of authorizations to cross the airspace between Israel and Iran, but also that considering the distances involved an airstrike would require air-to-air refueling which, in turn, would require even more aircraft in the air to protect strike force.  To make things worse, Iran is a big country, so several strike groups should be sent to different target groups to hit them and each strike group would have to be refueled, protected, and allowed to penetrate into Iranian airspace by dedicated suppression of enemy air defenses aircraft, including strike and electronic warfare aircraft.  Bottom line - it would be a huge operation and one which the Israelis simply cannot carry out.  But what if we assume that they could use Saudi airfields?

This option does not solve all problems, but it does address a lot of the worst problems involved in a direct attack from Israel.  First, if the Israelis were allowed to refuel in Saudi Arabia, they would not need to rely on always very complicated and dangerous air-to-air refueling.  That would immediately free many aircraft for other tasks.  Second, taking off from Saudi Arabia would place all of Iran well within the reach of Israeli strike aircraft which could then be "spread" all over the Iranian airspace to support each other.  The Israelis could even deploy helicopters to rescue
any downed pilot.  Third, taking off from Saudi Arabia would make it possible to attack some key Iranian targets with little or no warning since they are literally across the Persian Gulf.  The nuclear site at Bushehr could be revisited many times by successive waves from strike aircraft until the bomb damage assessment confirms that the target has been destroyed.  Furthermore, if the KSA takes the decision to offer its airfields to the Israeli Air Force it might as well offer military support, if only to protect itself.  If the Saudi Air Force decided to support the Israeli attack - especially with its AWACs and F-15s - it would make a huge difference.  The bottom line is this: if the Saudis and the Isarelis really decided to join forces they could strike Iran in a way which the Israelis alone could never hope for.  This would probably be a done deal by now if not for one big problem: CENTCOM.

All the fancy scenarios about a joint KSA-Isareli attack have to assume that the US CENTCOM would, at the very least, stand by and let such an attack proceed without taking any action.  This is highly unlikely because the Americans understand perfectly that any Iranian retaliatory strike would be primarily directed at them at which point the US would be as involved as the KSA or Israel.  From the American point of view, it would make no sense at all to let the Israelis and the Saudis start a war which would immediately result in the USA being involved.  At that point, the USA would be far better off starting the war by itself not only because the USAF and Navy are far more powerful and capable than the combined forces of Israel and the KSA, but primarily because the USA would be in control of the time, scope and manner of execution of the attack.  The USA, however, is clearly not interested in starting a war with Iran.

Knowing the Israelis, I am sure that they have carefully considered the option of simply ignoring Washington and going ahead with their customary chutzpah: let's start the war for the goyim - they won't dare stopping us anyway - and then see how they handle it.

Sounds crazy?  Yes, of course.  Because it is.  Too crazy for the Saudis and the Israelis?  I am not so sure.  The Saudis fully understand that if Assad remains in power this would make the so-called "Shia crescent" even more powerful than before the war against Syria started.  They also understand that if Assad is allowed to remain in power, the chances of a US attack on Iran will dramatically decrease, leaving them terrified of what their powerful neighbor might do.  The same goes for Israel which, for its own reasons, is also terrified of the Shia alliance of Hezbollah - Syria - Iran.  There can be no doubt at all that the Israelis and the Saudis would do anything for the Americans to get rid of the Shia threat against them.  But it appears that at least for the time being the USA does not want to comply with their crazy wish.

But would the Americans dare to use force to stop an Israeli attack on Iran?

That is really the key question and while we will only have a definitive answer to that if such a situation happens, I personally strongly believe that yes, the Americans would basically tell the Israelis to "turn back or else..."


Because what is at stake here is much more than just a local fight between Shia, Wahabis and Zionists: a US-Iranian war would inflame all of the Middle-East and possible spread way beyond this region.  According to some models, it could even result in a World War.  And that is something which Obama or, rather, those who put Obama into the White House do not want.  For all his long list of failings and screw-ups, there is one thing of significance which did do: he got rid of most of the Neocons and now the "Israel Firsters" have been replaced by "USA Firsters" and the latter have absolutely no intention to risk it all for the benefit of two rogue states lead by psychopaths.  It is impossible to prove it, but my guess is that, if really pushed into a corner by the usual Israeli arrogance, the Americans will use force to prevent an unauthorized Israeli attack on Iran.

For one thing, it is not too hard to conceal from the general public what really took place in the airspace over Saudi Arabia in the middle of the night.  Second, if the Americans actually open fire on the Israeli strike force, the Israelis will have no other option than to turn back.  Finally, the Americans also have a much simpler option: they can prevent the Israelis from refueling on the Saudi airfields.

In other words, this Saudi-Israeli attack ain't happening, at least as long as Obama or his allies are in the White House.

It appears that for all his grand statements about Saudi Arabia going at it alone, Prince Mohammed cannot back his words with some meaningful action.  The House of Saud and the Netanyahu can make all the bellicose statements they want - unless Uncle Sam allows it there is absolutely nothing they can do.  CENTCOM is the real master and overlord of the Middle-East and as long as CENTCOM does not want something - it ain't happening.

The Saker